Opinion: 'Post-earthquake Christchurch a designer disaster'

Riccarton Rd at the beginning of December. Photo: Geoff Sloan
Riccarton Rd at the beginning of December. Photo: Geoff Sloan
Gerrard Liddell explores the real cost of road transport.

The pandemic has given us a chance to reflect on the amenity of our roads.

Young and old, fit and frail have been able to enjoy our roads unthreatened by vehicles. We can hear each other and the birds that have returned.

Our children have been able to use their ride-ons, scooters and bikes. Whole families have space to walk together.

We had forgotten how much we had lost since fossil-fuelled vehicles decided they did not want to share the road.

Motorists concocted the term ‘‘jaywalking’’ to alienate others from their own road and marginalise them to narrow footpaths off which they must give way almost everywhere to vehicles. Overseas visitors are appalled at our subtribe of drivers who charge at dilatory pedestrians, treating other road users as little better than potential road kill.

We presume that one person in a car (the median occupancy) is entitled to take up the space of six cyclists or more than 10 pedestrians, yet we begrudge pedestrians the space to walk four abreast or cyclists to ride three abreast.

I as a motorist have never paid for this exclusive use of the road, compromising the safety of all others. I only pay part of the cost of resurfacing, the veneer of bitumen. I have paid nothing for disturbing others’ peace and taking their space.

It is my and others’ even heavier vehicles that damage the roads, and so it is only just that I contribute to this cost.

The moment I get into even the lightest car, my transport weight goes up from my weight by over a factor of 10, and by more in a Nissan Leaf and 20 times in an SUV. The road damage goes up over 10,000 times.

It is extraordinarily difficult to push a car up a slight hill while it is easy to walk or cycle up the same, lifting your own weight rather than the additional weight of a vehicle. In few activities do we use one or two thousand percent more energy than we need.

The prerogative of parking allows us to store our vehicles on the street, that is to "park" them, but we can’t clutter the streets with other mobile objects, like storage trolleys.

So those that do not own cars (like 40 per cent in some mesh blocks of South Dunedin) are paying rates for roads but missing out on their fair share of the road space. Even in the CBD parking charges do not cover the full cost of parking.

Worse this subsidised parking is used as the grounds for obstructing so many attempts to create space like cycleways for others. Our children have the same right we enjoyed growing up to be able to safely walk or cycle to school or other activities, yet my presumptions as a motorist have denied them that choice.

Research highlights the great cost to their health and development and to motorists as 40% of rush-hour traffic is due to children being driven to school. Addressing this would do more to decongest the roads than billion-dollar motorways.

Overshadowing these costs is the cost of carbon emissions that would need the price of petrol in New Zealand to go up 50% to $3 per litre. It makes protests over a 10-cent rise seem petty.

The social costs of motoring are over $6 billion per year.

There are many other consequences of the multibillion-dollar car subsidy. It results in congestion that would be moderated by more appropriate charges, freeing the roads and parking for the comparatively few disabled who feel crowded out at the moment.

The biggest and deepest consequence of the car subsidy is the construction of sprawling suburbs and retail. Every day we postpone moderating the subsidy we are pouring concrete into our own mausoleum.

The sprawl renders delusionary the exhortations to eat and shop locally.

Post- earthquake Christchurch is a designer disaster, scattering the population in unserviceable outposts like Rolleston, Lincoln and Rangiora, leaving an emaciated heart.

Dunedin has contained the retail sprawl, but where once we had hardware stores like Placemakers adjacent to the CBD now we have to go to tilt slab barns in South Dunedin.

The subsidy sabotages attempts to civilise the Octagon and George St as more pedestrian friendly precincts.

Fortunately many people in Dunedin live within cycling or walking distance of the CBD so we are better placed to change our transport mix.

The examination of our transport system is not about punishing motorists, of whom I am one, but being able to drive with a clear conscience, knowing that we motorists are paying our way. Current technology allows more realistic road pricing.

To leave such a comparatively easily marketised commodity as road transport out of the market is to make a mockery of claims to be a market economy.

The distortions percolate our economy.

It means we are taking money out of schools and hospitals and putting it into gas tanks.

The virus has given us an opportunity to reflect and reset.

This is the time to phase in at least token charges and progress to a more rational and sustainable future.

  •  Gerrard Liddell is a Dunedin mathematician.




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